Sincere thanks to David Gronow for permission to publish the following article and photographs.
The Prince of Centres
‘A trial will be given to H. Wagstaff, a promising youngster who has been assisting the Underbank club in the Bradford and District League.
Wagstaff is only fifteen years of age.’
That paragraph in a Huddersfield newspaper on Saturday 10 November 1906 heralded the debut of one of Rugby League’s greatest players, and was the prelude to an era in the history of Huddersfield Rugby League Football Club which brought a measure of fame and success rarely, if ever, achieved by an other club.
Wagstaff was born on 19 May 1891 at Underbank, Holmfirth, a Pennine village a few miles from Huddersfield.
His father Andrew had been born in Underbank in the 1870’s and moved to Rochdale to work as a millhand and married a local girl Hannah Rhodes, also a millhand.
Harold’s older siblings, Ann Eliza and Arthur had been born in Rochdale before the family returned to Underbank around 1881 which meant that Harold and his two other brothers, Young and Norman, were native Yorkshiremen.
Andrew was a railway labourer at the time of Harold’s birth, but was employed in the local mills for much of his life.
Harold’s mother died in 1904 when he was not yet thirteen.
Harold was rugby mad, playing the game as a young boy with an old yeast bag stuffed with rags for a ball.
At the age of thirteen he was playing with Pump Hole Rangers, a team of youths who gathered at the village pump in Holmfirth and played against teams of lads from the local district, often in farmers fields without goals or pitch markings.
The game they played was Northern Union football, derived from the ‘breakaway’ of the rugby union game since it’s inception in August 1895 at the George Hotel in Huddersfield.
Wagstaff’s ambition was to play for Underbank Rangers who had joined the Western Division of the Bradford & District League in 1906, after previously being a member of the Huddersfield & District League.
Shortly before his fifteenth birthday he achieved his ambition and made his debut in the Underbank side of 1905/06, playing at centre, scoring two tries in his first game.
The popularity of football in those days saw Underbank regularly attract crowds of a thousand or more at their Bank End ground against teams such as Rastrick, Marsden, Slaithwaite Juniors, Salterhebble, Brighouse St James, Thrum Hall, plus the reserve teams of Huddersfield and Halifax.
Wagstaff was a prolific scorer even at this young age, so it was no surprise when he was approached to go to the Halifax club by George Dickenson, a referee who was a former Halifax captain and Yorkshire forward.
Fortunately for Huddersfield, the Halifax Committee on learning his age, declined to sign him and Joe Clifford appeared on his doorstep with an offer from the Huddersfield club.
He signed for Huddersfield on 2 November 1906 accepting five gold sovereigns, and just eight days later at the age of fifteen years 175 days old, made his first team debut in the Claret and Gold at Barley Mow, Bramley on 10 November, scoring a try in a 28pts-11 win.
Only Bramley’s Harold Edmondson at 15 years and 81 days old, when he appeared against Bradford Northern in 1919, has ever played at senior level at a younger age.
Wagstaff, at the time weighed almost 11 stones - in the Sports Post of 16 February 1935, he recalled a memory of his debut against centre Albert Hambrecht, a veteran Yorkshire County centre who topped 13 stones:
‘ The first time I went to tackle Hambrecht….. I can feel the bump now when I think of it.
If ever a youngster felt that he had been under a steamroller , I did.’
He showed glimpses of the greatness to come and at the age of seventeen years and 171 days, was selected to play for Yorkshire against Cumberland in a 30pts-0 at Fartown on 17 October 1908, Wagstaff doing well enough to retain his place against Lancashire at Salford two weeks later.
Meanwhile, the first Australian touring team had journeyed to Britain and were to play England in their first international at Fartown 0n 2 January 1909.
Wagstaff, together with Huddersfield half-back Percy Holroyd, were chosen to make their international debuts, Holroyd securing the try that gave England a 14-9 victory.
Wagstaff, at 17 years and 228 days became, and remains, the youngest international of all time.
Periods of injury and illness greatly affected Wagstaff’s career.
Having played in the first three games of season 1909-10, he was taken gravely ill after he grazed his knee in the opening fixture against Bramley, the knee turned septic followed by blood poisoning, then becoming a victim of diptheria that required a stay at Seacroft Isolation Hospital, Leeds.
By January 1910 he was back in training, but a leg injury put him out of action until March, ironically, Huddersfield had lifted their first major trophy by defeating Batley in the Yorkshire Cup back in November and he had missed the historic event.
‘Waggy’ fully recovered for the following campaign, and as the season came towards an end the club appointed him captain - still not aged 20, he held the position, except for one season, until he retired.
Waggy was a great team man and the creative inspiration alongside the skills of Rosenfeld, Gleeson and Moorhouse.
The years before the Great War saw Huddersfield at their dominant best, Wagstaff the inspiration of the ‘Team of All Talents’, leading them to three Challenge Cup Finals (all won), five Yorkshire Cup Finals (3 won), six winning Yorkshire League titles and four League Championships (3 won), the ultimate being season 1914/15, when Huddersfield became the second side to win All Four Cups, only Hunslet before and Swinton afterwards achieving the feat.
By 1914 he had also become captain of England, and when the second Lions team to tour Australia that summer was announced he was also awarded the captaincy - the ‘Rorkes Drift’ Third and deciding Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 4 July 1914 considered to be the best match of his career - down to nine men at one point in the closing stages, The Northern Union won by 14pts-6, thanks to Waggy’s magnificent example of aggressive and skilful football.
Wagstaff was a motor driver in civilian life and had married Ann Battye, a local Holmfirth girl in January 1915.
Wartime changed his life completely.
During 1916/17, along with Albert Rosenfeld, Ben Gronow and Douglas Clark, he was drafted into the Army Service Corps, based at Grove Park, seeing service in Egypt and Palestine during 1917-18.
Clark and Gronow went to France, with Rosenfeld going to Mesopotamia (Iraq) until the Armistice.
Waggy became a shining light with the ASC, twice registering five tries, and on one occasion his wingman scoring no fewer than thirteen tries.
Peacetime saw Wagstaff and Huddersfield back on course where they left off - the Challenge Cup, Yorkshire Cup and the Yorkshire League were already in their possession when they met Hull at Leeds in the League Championship Final on 24 April 1920.
Huddersfield were leading 2-0, but with Wagstaff and four team-mates en-route for Australia - again with Wagstaff as captain - a try in the 75th minute by Billy Batten robbed Huddersfield of another chance of ‘All Four Cups’.
Huddersfield granted Wagstaff a well-deserved benefit match when Rochdale visited Fartown on 31 January 1920, despite a wet and miserable day there were 15,888 spectators realising £927 19s 2d, Huddersfield winning by 22-8.
In 1921-22 he led the team that regained the Ashes - his final Test match being the decider against the Kangaroos at Salford on 14 January, 1922.
Illness again affected Wagstaff, he underwent an operation for a duodenal ulcer after suffering stomach problems for many years.
Wagstaff’s last season was 1924-25, always playing in a corset to protect his abdomen, making his last appearance in Fartown colours in the full back position at Oldham on Monday 23 March 1925.
Retirement beckoned, with Wagstaff becoming licensee of the Boar’s Head public house in Halifax, before returning to Huddersfield in 1932 to take over as landlord of the Swan With Two Necks in Westgate (later the Royal Swan in 1933).
In 1925-26 he had a brief unsuccessful spell as coach at Halifax, and in 1935 acted in a similar capacity for the Broughton Rangers club.
He was elected to the General Committee of the Huddersfield club in 1937, the following year to the Football Committee and subsequently made Vice-Chairman in 1938-39.
Again, towards the end of 1938, Wagstaff had not been in good health and following a bad attack of influenza which left with heart problems, went into Huddersfield Nursing Home two days before his untimely death, passing away on 19 July 1939, aged only forty-eight years.
On the day of the funeral hundreds lined the streets outside the Royal Swan in Westgate in the centre of Huddersfield, making the thoroughfare along Market Street almost impassable for fully half an hour.
On the coffin lay two wreaths - a cross from his widow and son, and one in the form of a rugby ball comprised of golden lilies and claret carnations, bearing the inscription ‘ From the boys of the Fartown football team.’
Eight of Wagstaff’s old team-mates carried the coffin into Holmfirth Parish Church where the Rev’d T.H.Cashmore addressed the congregation by saying:
‘Holmfirth was rightly proud of a man who, in his own sphere, had carried her name far beyond their hills and valleys.
He had great qualities of heart and mind and body that won for him the confidence and admiration of thousands.’
He was recognised by the Rugby Football League on 24 October 1988 when, along with Albert Rosenfeld, they included him in the original nine members of the Hall of Fame, with a similar honour bestowed on him in April 1999 by inclusion into the inaugural Huddersfield RL Club Players Association Hall of Fame.
Debut: 10 November 1906 v Bramley (a)
Last Game: 23 March 1925 v Oldham (a)
|Northern Union||11||Australia||11||1911||Edinburgh [2 tries]|
|Northern Union||16||N Zealand||13||1914||Auckland|
|Northern Union||19||N Zealand||3||1920||Christchurch|
|Northern Union||11||N Zealand||10||1920||Wellington|
Test match rugby league kicked off on Saturday 25 January 1908 when The Northern Union defeated
New Zealand 14-6 at Headingley.
Since then the British National XIII has gone under the guise of The Northern Union (1908-1922),
England (1924-46) and Great Britain (1947-2007).
|England||39||Wales||13||1910||Coventry [T, 2G]|
|England||27||Wales||8||1911||Ebbw Vale [T, G]|
|England||33||Other Nationalities||16||1921||Workington [T]|
|Yorkshire||19||Cumberland||5||1912||Hull KR [T]|
|Represent Northern RL, etc||4||-||-||-|
* Excluding Tests
Note: The records for the 1914 and 1920 tours of Australasia are incomplete.